Tag Archives: ethics

Voluntourism is fighting back

I have voluntourism in my Google Alerts, so that I can get links to press releases, news articles that mention the term. I’m not fond of voluntourism, where volunteers pay large amounts of money to go abroad for a few weeks, or even several weeks, to engage in a short-term activity that will give them a sense of helping people, animals or the environment. I look at this growing industry with great skepticism in terms of actually helping anyone, because it’s focused on the wants of the volunteer – that feel-good, often highly photogenic experience – not the critical local needs of local people or the environment, and there’s little screening of volunteers – most everyone is taken, so long as they can pay. What these foreigners bring through these voluntourism programs is often not skills, experience or capabilities that cannot be found locally – it’s money, and I see no evidence that this money benefits local people – maybe the people that run the program are “helped”, but not those meant to be helped by the volunteers. I don’t think all pay-to-volunteer schemes are horrid, and I don’t think creating a vacation that has a social or environmental “good” goal (transire benefaciendo) is a bad thing, but I think there are a tremendous number of voluntourism programs out there that aren’t really benefitting communities in the developing world – and some are actually causing harm. I push back to questions about and posts prompting voluntourism on Quora and Reddit, and I’ve been pleased to see more and more people doing the same. That push-back must be working, because now I’m also seeing a lot of voluntourism companies aggressively fighting back on the blogosphere, asserting that their programs are worthwhile (but never offering hard data to prove it).

I’ve been happy to see the tide turning against many forms of voluntourism as people realize that work abroad should make local people the number one priority, not the feel-good experience for a foreign volunteer. For instance, Australian NGOs are refusing to place volunteers in orphanages abroad, because of the exploitation of children, potential harm to children, and lack of any data showing such voluntourism helps children at all.

The UK’s International Citizen Service (ICS), which has placed thousands of young people in volunteer roles around the world, is now under scrutiny: Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has taken action against ICS and other members of the UK consortium of organizations providing volunteering opportunities over safety concerns. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), according to a report by VSO, regarded ICS as a “high-risk programme due to the security and safety issues” involved.  “ICS safeguarding incidents have included death by drowning of two volunteers, sexual assaults, and the detention of volunteers by local police.” Volunteers live and work in countries where they may be exposed to petty and violent crime, political instability, endemic diseases and natural disasters.

There’s even a growing backlash against medical voluntourism, per reporting by Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, who says her research shows that some people volunteering abroad for a few weeks, or several weeks, to engage in medical “help” for people in developing countries “does indeed cause harm.

It must be taking its toll, because I got a link to a press release about how a certain African “foundation” has hired a PR agency “to change the public perception of medical volunteering or voluntourism.” I’m not going to link to the press release – no free publicity here for a for-profit marketing company. But I had a look at the “foundation”‘s web site. The site is mostly about the gorgeous “luxury” accommodations for volunteers on a game reserve, whcih has an onsite gym, an infinity pool, a private patio “for stargazing,” and nearby opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, golfing, weight training, yoga, abseiling, white river rafting, tubing, kloofing, microlighting, helicopter rides, “and hot air ballooning!” The company can hook volunteers up with wildlife photography tours and photography courses, half day trips to an animal rehabilitation center “featured on National Geographic,” and visits for “pampering yourself at the local spas.” I’m surprised there aren’t workshops provided on how to take the perfect “Look how I’m helping these poor people” selfies… Oh, there is a page or two about the medical services volunteers will squeeze into their busy schedule enjoying all that hiking and hot air ballooning.

Also see:

Learning From The ‘Not-So-Nice’ Volunteers

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI am trying to find and revive some of the most popular articles and commentaries I’ve written over the years that were hosted on other people’s web sites, many of which are now only available on archive.org, and then only if you can remember the URL of the defunct site.

In 2004, I was invited by Mary Merrill to write a column for her December Topic of the Month. My topic was:

Learning From The ‘Not-So-Nice’ Volunteers

The premise: we have a lot to learn from the “not-so-nice volunteers”, the people who are putting their time and energy into defending human rights, addressing social ills, and battling institutions who they feel are attacking their quality of life or an element of their community that they treasure. And we have a lot to learn from the people who manage such volunteers.

I’ve reposted that article on my own site.

 

If humans can do it, so can volunteers (who are, BTW, also humans)

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersWhen should you involve humans in the care and support of vulnerable populations, like children, people with disabilities, women who have been victims of domestic violence, etc., or in high-risk situations, like working with wildlife or fighting fires?

Most people would say humans are essential to all of those scenarios – that care and support cannot be provided in those situations without humans, that emergency response cannot be provided by humans, that addressing the needs of wildlife adversely affected by humans cannot be done without humans. And I would agree. I bet you would too. What’s the alternative – robots? Not yet, robots… not yet…

But what do humans need in order to be able to provide appropriate care and support in those high-responsibility, even high-risk, situations, and to stay safe themselves? Humans need:

  • to be appropriately screened and vetted, with inappropriate humans turned away and appropriate humans brought into the program
  • specific training for these situations – and, perhaps, ongoing training
  • regular, appropriate supervision
  • regular, quality support

You would agree with all of that, right?

Now change the word humans in the aforementioned text the word volunteers. Suddenly, the conversation changes.

Volunteers aren’t appropriate!

Volunteers could endanger the clients!

Volunteers will harm the wildlife!

What’s different? Just one thing: when we were talking about humans before, you were immediately thinking of paid staff. Now that I change the word to volunteers, we’re talking about unpaid staff, and many automatically assume that means untrained, unsupervised people who work whenever they might maybe find some time.

Volunteers mean just one thing: people who aren’t paid a wage, that aren’t given financial compensation for their service hours. That’s it! Volunteers do NOT have to mean untrained, unvetted people, just anyone off the street who says, “I have a good heart! I want to help!”

No one who has not been appropriately vetted, no one who lacks the necessary training, no one who cannot be appropriately supervised and no one who is not regularly supported should be doing any work with vulnerable populations or with wildlife, paid or not. A paycheck has nothing to do with a person’s appropriateness to undertake a role at a nonprofit, NGO, charity, etc.

So, with that said, when should a nonprofit, NGO, charity, school or other mission-based organization involve a paid person instead of an unpaid person? Susan Ellis of Energize says it best, in her book, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success:

Offering a salary gives the agency a pre-determined number of work hours per week, the right to dictate the employee’s work schedule, a certain amount of control over the nature and priorities of the work to be done, and continuity. When you pay a salary, you can require that the person give your organization forty hours a week or whatever number is necessary. Because most people need to earn a living, people can rarely give one agency that much volunteer time per week… (pages 12 – 13).

And, to be fair, people DESERVE to earn a living. I’m looking at you, United Nations agencies that have six-month unpaid internships – volunteer gigs that only well-off young people can undertake…

Volunteers can do high-responsibility, even high-risk activities, and they can fill expert roles. In fact, they actually DO all of these things already, all over the USA and all over the world. What the vast majority volunteers usually cannot do is provide 40 hours a week of service, even 20 hours a week, to an organization, week-after-week – they can’t afford it! Many roles at a nonprofit, non-governmental organization or charity require a person to staff a role full-time, or even part-time, 20 hours a week, week after week – and that means, to keep that role staffed at all times, the agency must pay someone. Many roles at nonprofits, NGOs, charities, schools, etc., require someone to have a great deal of training and experience in order to do the role that needs to be done, and most people that have the training and experience necessary for such roles have such because it is related to their career, their paid work, and they got the certification or degree(s) necessary for such for their paid work.

I don’t believe in involving volunteers to save money – I believe an organization should create volunteering opportunities primarily because they believe a volunteer would be the best person for that particular role, just as an organization reserves certain roles specifically for paid staff, and you make those decisions based on a myriad of criteria. I also believe that one needs to tread carefully when asking an economically challenged community, one with a very high unemployment rate and people struggling to pay for the basic necessities of life, to donate their time to keep a nonprofit afloat.

So, how much time and responsibility may you ask of a volunteer? What’s reasonable?

That is a question that is frequently asked. And there are no easy answers. It can vary from organization to organization, from community to community.

There are communities that are well-served by entirely volunteer fire stations, with enough well-trained, constantly trained volunteers always on-call to respond to any fire or other emergency. But in those same communities there might be a cold-weather shelter for the homeless and the nonprofit running such is struggling to find over-night volunteers to manage the facility for 6-8 hours at a time. Why does one group have a waiting list of people that want to volunteer while another in the same community, with less requirements for training and less of a time commitment each month, struggle?

There can be all sorts of reasons why one organization can easily attract volunteers to high-intensity, high-responsibility, high-commitment roles, and another cannot:

  • One role may look fun, exciting, interesting and even heroic, while another may look difficult, scary, even depressing.
  • One role may look like it could help the volunteer in his or her career or university studies, while another may just look like a lot of work for no pay.
  • One role may look like the challenges would be uplifting, while another may look like it would be disheartening.
  • One role may seem like you get a lot of community recognition, that you are frequently thanked, while another may be rather thankless.
  • One role may look like it would be fun, at least some of the time, while another may look daunting and soul-draining.
  • One organization may be targeting a particular social or economic group that has the financial safety net and family structure (child care) to be able to afford to volunteer, while another organization may be targeting a group that can’t afford to do unpaid work (they are already caregivers, they have child care needs, etc.).

If you are having trouble attracting volunteers, you need to look at a lot of things:

  • Is it easy to know just from looking at your web site what volunteers do, the different roles, the time commitment, the training requirements, and how to sign up?
  • When someone calls or emails about volunteering, or submits an application, do they get an immediate reply regarding next steps? In fact, do they get info at all, or does someone take their name and say someone will get back to them and then, most of the time, no one ever does?
  • Are your next steps for volunteering with your organization something that the volunteer can get started on in a few days? In several weeks? In a few months? The further away the next step, the more likely the volunteer candidate won’t follow through.
  • Do you need to alter the volunteer role so that a volunteer would get more out of it, in terms of training, career-development, university class credit, or personal fulfillment? Is there anything you can do to make the role more fun?
  • Can the people you are trying to recruit as volunteers afford to volunteer – to work for free? Do they have child care responsibilities that are preventing them from helping?
  • Could you make the time commitment less for volunteers? Could you try to recruit more volunteers for shorter shifts, for instance, instead of fewer volunteers for longer shifts?
  • Does the task seem especially intimidating or daunting? Could you make it less so, by reducing the time commitment the volunteer would have to make, or by guaranteeing that there is a seasoned volunteer or employee always with the new volunteer? Or by taking away the tasks in the role that are the most intimidating and giving them to paid staff? Or by better assuring candidates that they will be fully trained before they are put into potentially challenging situations?
  • Are you asking too much from volunteers in terms of a time commitment, training and the responsibilities they will undertake as unpaid staff? Do you need to convert such roles into paid positions, in order to better attract the people that can make the time and emotional commitment to the role?

This is yet another blog that was inspired by my own real-life moments – two, in fact: one from a nonprofit that felt I was being inappropriate for disagreeing with them that their work is too high-risk for volunteers, and another from a situation that is happening in my own community regarding volunteer recruitment. It was supposed to be two blogs – but they seem so closely related, I put them together.

Also see:

Why Should the Poor Volunteer? It’s Time To Re-Think the Answer

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersIn 2006, I was invited by Mary Merrill to write a column about the ethics around asking poor people and chronically unemployed people – those desperate for funds – to volunteer. It was in response to an article on the United Nations World Volunteer Web.

Below is an archived version of my 2006 article for Mary:

Why Should the Poor Volunteer? It’s Time To Re-Think the Answer

In an article on the World Volunteer Web in December 2005, a university student in Yemen asked, “How can you volunteer if you have no income, no money and are concerned about the means to provide your kids with something on their plates every night? With all due respect to those calling for Yemenis to volunteer, I say, ‘Please be serious!'”

In an article from the BBC, reposted on the same web site, Tom Geoghegan said, “the prospect of unwaged employment might not be so appealing if you’re a cash-strapped school leaver who wants to help mum put food on the table.”

When volunteering is so often presented just one way — as a state-sanctioned free labor activity — these responses are completely justified.

Current promotions of volunteerism, whether in rich or poor countries, are focused primarily on government-endorsed or state-driven activities: the state or large corporations, through their sponsorship of such campaigns, encourage people to work without pay to address community and social needs, the gain being a better community, improved self-esteem for the volunteer, and less money needed to pay for such action, as volunteers aren’t paid. It’s an appallingly-limited view of what volunteering is and its true importance and power, and it’s no wonder that the unemployed and the disenfranchised scoff at such campaigns.

The world and its history are rife with examples of volunteering by the unemployed and disenfranchised to positively affect people and the environment in confrontation to or outside of the state or other power structures. These activities have sometimes empowered the volunteers as full citizens for the first time. Those who organized in the Southern USA in the 1950s and 60s to register voters, to shine a blinding light on social injustice and to stop Jim Crow, the American version of apartheid? They were volunteers, often socially-excluded themselves, working against local power structures, in order to improve American society and to change their own destinies for the better. Local people engaging in campaigns to counter the practice of female genital mutilation or to improve women’s rights, often in direct opposition to community leaders or long-held traditions? Again, volunteers and, often, people who do not enjoy full employment and perhaps, in the case of women, who do not enjoy full rights as citizens. Yet, most volunteerism campaigns and conferences ignore these passionate volunteer campaigners working outside “the system,” whom Mary Merrill calls both “vigilantes” and “entrepreneurs.” Talking about volunteering as a way to challenge the state or other power structures, or to empower people and communities, would probably be quite appealing to that earlier-mentioned Yemeni student, or others who are unemployed and disenfranchised. However, mainstream campaigns continue to promote volunteerism as just a feel-good activity and a way for the state or others to not have to pay people for work — a message that just does not resonate with so many.

There’s also a tendency by such campaigns to equate all community service with volunteerism. However, if a person is paid to provide a service to the community, he or she is no longer a volunteer. That isn’t to say he or she, because of the receipt of money, has less dedication than a volunteer; I’ve certainly encountered UNDP and NGO paid staff members who are every bit as committed and heartfelt in their work as people providing unpaid service. But “volunteer” should mean the person is unpaid, or at least, giving up his or her employment for a significant period of time in order to provide full-time community service. In certain situations, volunteers may be the most appropriate to staff an initiative, while other situations may call for paid staff — and these situations often have nothing to do with whether or not there’s a budget to pay people.

If governments and donors want volunteerism campaigns in poor communities to actually lead to more volunteering, they must radically update their message. They must be prepared to show why volunteers, rather than paid staff, are best for a particular task, beyond that there’s no budget to pay such people. They must show how those whom they are trying to entice to volunteer will benefit directly in terms of potential employment or an improved life and a greater voice. They need to point out that volunteering can give a person a first-hand view of the work of the government or others, and a fact-based perspective and voice to endorse or oppose it. They need to explain that volunteers can also have their own agendas for their service, just as those promoting volunteerism do. They need to say, point blank, that one of the primary benefits of volunteering is that it can create the platform for “ordinary people” to become decision-makers, even leaders, regarding their communities and the environment, and that it can allow a diversity of voices to be heard regarding a diversity of issues. And governments and donors need to put the individuals in charge of defining their own volunteerism goals and activities, and to be prepared for those activities, at least sometimes, to be counter to the volunteerism campaigner’s agendas.

NGOs need to talk about and to volunteers as investors. They need to think of volunteer involvement as a way to build trust among community members and those whose support they need. They must learn how to translate volunteer involvement into long-term and consistent support. Volunteerism should be viewed as a way for local people, including youth, to influence policy-making. And NGOs must be explicit in their message to youth regarding how volunteering can help young people, if they so choose, to pursue their future educational and career endeavors.

VENRO, the Association of German development non-governmental organizations (NGOs), says on its web site that “NGOs are described as the core of democratic civil society. NGOs protest and interfere, they are dedicated to dialogue and cooperation. NGOs reflect the will of socially and politically responsible and committed citizens who, to a large degree, work on a voluntary basis.” It’s a much more powerful view of volunteering that what is being promoted by so many mainstream organizations, and one that would certainly appeal to that university student from Yemen.

It’s a challenging proposition for the mainstream promoters of volunteerism to think and speak so differently. But without meeting this challenge, we will turn generations and groups all over the world off to volunteering. What a tragedy that would be.

Note: Mary Merrill was a consultant regarding volunteer engagement, a dynamic, provocative speaker, a skilled facilitator, and a frequently-cited source by other consultants and volunteerism researchers, including me. Her company was called Merrill Associates, and her web site, merrillassociates.com, is archived at archive.org. Mary served as a consultant to numerous nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations, charities and professional associations in the United States, Canada, Russia, Armenia, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and the United Kingdom, and consulted with the United Nations Volunteers programme based in Germany. She taught the Institute for Community Leadership and Volunteer Administration at Ohio State University. She coordinated international study abroad projects for Ohio State University Leadership Center and North Carolina State University 4-H. She was editor of the Journal of Volunteer Administration. She was a featured speaker at three World Volunteer Conferences. She was also a licensed social worker. She received the Distinguished Service Award from the International Association for Volunteer Administration, a Lifetime Achievement Award for dedication to Volunteerism in the profession of Volunteer Administration from Volunteer Ohio, and an Award for Excellence from the Volunteer Administrators’ Network of Central Ohio, she was named Peacemaker of the Year by the Interfaith Center for Peace, and received the Walter and Marion English Award from the United Way of Franklin County. She was a graduate of Ohio State University. Mary died in February 19, 2006. She was my dear friend and colleague and mentor, and the resources on her web site, merrillassociates.com, archived at archive.org, are worth your time to read.

Also see:

I won’t help you recruit a receptionist/volunteer coordinator

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersRecently, I got asked if I would share a job opening at a PDX (Portland, Oregon)-area nonprofit. It was for a receptionist / volunteer coordinator. I responded:

I actually have a policy not to promote receptionist/volunteer coordinator jobs. Sorry. It’s a matter of my perspective about the importance of both positions.

It wasn’t the first time I had to tell someone this.

I will not promote receptionist / volunteer coordinator jobs. I will not promote receptionist / donor manager jobs, receptionist / marketing manager jobs, nor receptionist / legal council jobs. Not that I have ever seen those last three jobs advertised. Because such a combination of jobs would be preposterous. Just as preposterous as combining receptionist and volunteer coordinator, or volunteer manager, or director of volunteer services into one position.

I could write a long blog about why but, honestly, if you don’t get it, I just don’t have the time…

See also:

J.K. Rowling speaks out against orphan tourism

This, in short, is why I will never retweet appeals that treat poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners’ CVs. #Voluntourism

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is no fan of voluntourism, particularly orphan tourism.

Below are screen captures of a series of Tweets she sent about this back in 2016, per someone asking her to retweet an appeal for such volunteers to “help” orphans in another country. It’s followed by the transcript of the tweets in the screen capture, and after that, there are a list of links to more information on the dangers of orphan tourism and where to find legitimate volunteering abroad programs (and how to recognize such).

And be sure to follow her via @jk_rowling:

Transcripts of tweets:

#Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivises ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses.

The charity I have just been asked to support offers (doubtless well-intentioned) Westerners ‘volunteer experiences’ in child institutions.

One of the advantages listed for your orphanage volunteer experience is that it will give you a CV ‘distinguisher’. #voluntourism

The #voluntourism charity tells volunteers that they will be able to ‘play and interact’ with children ‘in desperate need of affection.

‘

Willingness to cling to strangers is a sign of the profound damage institutions do to children #voluntourism

Globally, poverty is the no. 1 reason that children are institutionalised. Well-intentioned Westerners supporting orphanages…

… perpetuates this highly damaging system and encourages the creation of more institutions as money magnets. #voluntourism

Never forget, 80% of institutionalised children worldwide have close family who want them back. They are not orphans. #Voluntourism

These children and these countries need social care and health systems that keep families together. #Voluntourism

This, in short, is why I will never retweet appeals that treat poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners’ CVs. #Voluntourism

More resources:

When mission statements, ideologies & human rights collide

logoThere is a legal case in Canada that started in 1995 regarding a person that was refused participation as a volunteer, and that case has always stuck with me. I have never, ever seen it discussed on an online forum for managers of volunteers and never heard it mentioned at a conference related to volunteerism or nonprofit management. I guess I’ve been waiting all these years for someone else to say, “Hey, what about this? How does this affect us? Might this affect us?” But no one has. So, I guess I will, per a discussion that came up on my blog Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea.

In Canada, Kimberly Nixon, a transgendered woman, launched a human rights complaint against Vancouver Rape Relief, a nonprofit, for excluding her as a volunteer peer counselor for raped and battered women that seek the services of this nonprofit. Vancouver Rape Relief said it rejected Nixon as a volunteer peer counselor because the organization’s spaces for counseling clients are dedicated women’s-only spaces, and their clients come to the organization specifically because of this commitment to women’s-only spaces (unlike many other nonprofits that offer rape counseling – another women’s group, Battered Women’s Support Services, accepts transgendered women as volunteers, and Nixon volunteered there previously). Vancouver Rape Relief said the reason was also “because she did not share the same life experiences as women born and raised as girls and into womenhood.”

After 12 years of legal pursuits, in 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada denied Nixon’s appeal to have her case heard, leaving the B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision in December 2005 as the last word on the dispute. This article offers a nice summation of that appeal’s court decision:

While it may appear that Rape Relief discriminated against Nixon because she was born with a penis, they have a different rationale. Rape Relief’s collective belief is that far beyond a person’s biological make-up, socialization and experience are what shapes individuals. It’s part of their philosophy that women experience the male-dominated world differently than men. That was the 34-year-old organization’s original argument for why they should be allowed to exclude men when their women-only policy was first challenged in the 1970s, and they feel it’s relevant to whether they should admit transsexual women.

It’s noted in the article, and I think it is VERY important to note here, that “both parties agreed that Nixon was a woman and that gender existed on a continuum — it wasn’t binary, despite the social convention of dividing everyone into categories of male or female” and “both the tribunal and Rape Relief accept that Nixon has a genuine interest in counselling other women, and she has done so both before and after her filing the human rights complaint.”

This article from 2000, before the case was decided by the courts, does a good job of showing the different arguments in the case. But even with a final decision, the case continues to be a source of controversy in Canada and abroad among those concerned with human rights applications for transgendered people. Some still call Vancouver Rape Relief “transphobic”: this article says that because the organization is “allowed to make their own determinations about who is—or who is not—a woman, and exclude them accordingly” that the organization is “allowed to discriminate against trans women. As a feminist and an ally to the trans community, I find this extraordinarily disturbing.” Disputing these accusations, the organization has a section on its web site defending its definition of a women-only space and its commitment to such, and one of the organization’s long-time staff members, Lee Lakeman, notes in this 2012 interview, that “Aboriginal people used the arguments that we built in court to defend their right to be only Aboriginals in their group.”

I do not bring any of this up to try to debate who is and isn’t a woman.

I could have also brought up cases regarding tribal membership – this article does a great job of explaining why cultural identification determination is so difficult, as well as explaining why tribal leadership gets to determine who is and isn’t a member of their tribe, rather than the federal government or the federal courts. Conversations and debates about such can be just as heated as the Nixon case.

I bring this case up to remind nonprofit staff, employees and volunteers alike, that a definition you may have of a particular aspect of humanity – who is or isn’t a woman, who is or isn’t gay, who is or isn’t a member of a particular ethnic group, who is or isn’t a member of a particular tribe, who should or should not call themselves an Oregonian or a Texan or a German or an English person or an African whatever – may not be the same, or as absolute, as someone else’s. Mission statements, ideologies, beliefs about human rights and the law can all collide – and have over and over, in break rooms, in meeting rooms, at community events, and in the courts. Don’t be surprised when it happens at, or regarding, your nonprofit.

What’s my opinion on this case? No way I’m going there… I’ve been controversial enough on my blog (links below). I’m going to let ya’ll debate it in the comments, if you want.

But I did kinda sorta blog about something like this before, back in 2012: Careful what you claim: the passions around identity

Also see:

Resources re: labor laws and volunteering

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersLabor laws regarding volunteering vary from country to country. For instance, in the USA, creating a written contract or memorandum of understanding with a volunteer, ensuring there is an agreement on what is expected of a volunteer, is normal and entirely legal, but in the United Kingdom, such can make the volunteer a paid employee, and due for financial compensation.

How should you determine who is a volunteer and who should be paid for the hours they work at your organization, no matter what country you are in?

There are terrific resources on the US Department of Labor web site regarding volunteerism that can help any nonprofit or charity, in any country, think about both why it involves volunteers and how it should talk about the value of volunteerism, as well as the qualities of a well-run volunteering program. Although it’s USA-centric and cites USA law, much of what it proposes regarding volunteerism is based in ethics as much as law.

For instance, there’s this detailed response by DOL staff to someone asking if the time employees spend on volunteer activities outside their employer’s worksite or on activities outside their regular work are compensable working time. For instance, “Does the employer have a duty to compensate non-exempt employees for the time they spend volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity project outside of normal working hours?” Any corporation that organizes volunteering activities for its employees needs to read this document carefully.

Employees volunteering outside of their jobs, at the direction of their employer, is further explored in this response from the DOL, which talks about nurses being asked to volunteer their time, unpaid, to participate in community service activities, such as taking blood pressure at a health fair, teaching child care classes to expectant parents, participating in “career day” at a local school, helping the Red Cross, or helping with the hospital picnic. Other activities in question involve employee attendance at patient care conferences, task force meetings, and committee meetings on their days off or outside regular working hours.

Also see:

Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act

Whether an incentive based pay plan at a company, which includes civic and charitable volunteer activities, complies with the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Both of these are USA-centric as well but, again, the advice is terrific for other countries as well. Of course, you should still check to see what your country’s laws are regarding volunteers, including interns or anyone to whom you aren’t paying at least a legal minimum wage.

In addition, there’s also this Safety and Health Checklist for Voluntary and Community-Based Organizations Engaged in Disaster Recovery Demolition and Construction Activities. This detailed document emphasizes the importance of such organizations promoting the health and safety of their work teams, including volunteers, and provides a checklist outlining some of the hazards frequently encountered during disaster response and recovery operations and what the organization should have in place to support and protect volunteers, including what training volunteer work teams should have. This checklist is great no matter what country you are in.

Having a mission statement for your organization’s volunteer engagement can protect you from over-zealous staff members, consultants and corporate funders who want to push for volunteers to replace paid staff and save money, or to increase volunteer engagement in areas of the nonprofits work that would be inappropriate. It also could help protect you against lawsuits from volunteers who feel they were merely unpaid workers. The US Department of Labor (DOL) and US Federal Courts want to see that the work of volunteers is distinctly different from the duties of the organization’s employees – and their guidelines on how they make the determination regarding who is a volunteer and who should be paid are good guidelines for volunteering other countries as well. To determine whether an individual is truly volunteering, the DOL and US Federal Courts look to:

  • The nature of the entity receiving the volunteer services
  • The character of the volunteer services (activities) themselves
  • The amount of control the employer or engaging organization exerts over the volunteer
  • Compensation or benefits provided to the volunteer, or that the individual expects
  • Whether the volunteer work displaces paid work by regular employees

You can read more from the DOL here.

Also see Is Your Volunteer Really an Employee? The Answer Might Surprise You [Part 1] and Is Your Volunteer Really an Employee? The Answer Might Surprise You [Part 2].

If these links ever stop working, cut and paste the URL of any one of them into archive.org, and you should be able to access an archived version of the document.

Learn more about how to talk about the value of volunteers.

 

Medical Voluntourism Can Cause Serious Harm

In a recent blog hosted by the Scientific American, Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, says her research shows that some people volunteering abroad for a few weeks, or several weeks, to engage in medical “help” for people in developing countries “does indeed cause harm. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.”

Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse, but Sullivan does have solid data: “I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.

She notes a variety of voluntourism web sites that invite volunteers with little or no medical training to do invasive procedures abroad, including providing vaccines, pulling teeth, providing male circumcisions, suturing and delivering babies. “Most volunteers I’ve observed deliver at least one baby, despite being unlicensed to do so.”

Her examples in the article are stunning: in Tanzania in 2015, her team encountered a young woman that’s called Mary in her article:

Mary routinely delivered babies unassisted by local midwives because she appeared familiar with the procedure—a skill she said she learned in 2013 on a previous volunteer stint.

Mary violated obstetrics best practices, doing unnecessary episiotomies (cutting the skin between the vaginal opening and anus to make room for the baby’s head) and pulling breech babies (babies positioned bottom instead of head-first in the birth canal). Once routine in obstetrics, current guidelines restrict episiotomy to exceptional cases because they may cause permanent problems for the mother, including incontinence. Meanwhile, pulling breech babies can cause suffocation.

After Mary’s departure, we learned she was not a medical student at all; she was an undergraduate student, unaware of the risks in what she was doing. 

Voluntourism – where volunteers pay large amounts of money to go abroad for a few weeks, or even several weeks, to engage in a short-term activity that will give them a sense of helping people, animals or the environment – is a growing industry. I look at most of it with great skepticism in terms of actually helping anyone, because it’s focused on the wants of the volunteer – that feel-good, often highly photogenic experience – not the critical local needs of local people or the environment, and there’s little screening of volunteers – most everyone is taken, so long as they can pay. What these foreigners bring through these voluntourism programs is often not skills, experience or capabilities that cannot be found locally – it’s money.

The End Humanitarian Douchery campaign takes a much stronger stand against voluntourism in any form than I do, drawing attention to the negative consequences such can have for local communities in particular. The campaign organizers offer tips on “how to find a program that will have a truly POSITIVE impact on the host community.” Likewise, ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education, an academic paper by Colleen McGloin of the University of Wollongong, Australia and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, says that “voluntourism reinforces the dominant paradigm that the poor of developing countries require the help of affluent westerners to induce development. And this article is advice from someone who paid to volunteer abroad – and realized she shouldn’t be. All are worth reading, no matter where you stand on the issue of voluntourism or volunteering abroad.

I do think there are some effective short-term pay-to-volunteer abroad programs, among them Bpeace and Humanist Service Corps. But both of these programs are driven by what local people want, and they do NOT take just any volunteer that can pay.

This is my reality check regarding volunteering abroad, which reviews all the different types of programs. It links to many articles that discuss the dangers of voluntourism programs to local people, and to volunteers themselves, and to quality advice on how to make a real difference abroad.

July 17, 2017 updateCharities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

Also see:

 

Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersBack in 2009, the Volunteer Centre South Derbyshire, in England, featured one of my posts from UKVPMs (a discussion group for volunteer managers in the United Kingdom) on its blog in response to an article that says treating volunteers like employees is a great idea. I’m flattered that they thought my thoughts so worthy!

Here was the situation that I commented on:

In this commentary in the Guardian, the writer talks about a volunteer DJ at a small Christian radio project in South Manchester, England, who was fired when staff became aware that he is gay. The writer’s conclusion is that the employment laws need to apply to volunteers in order to protect them from being fired for no good reason.

Here was my response from UKVPMs (edited a bit for clarity):

On the one hand, I don’t believe in requiring volunteers to do things that staff are not required to do: background checks should be for everyone, not just the volunteers. The anti-discrimination policy of the organization applies to everyone, not just paid staff. Neither paid staff nor volunteer staff should be exploited or mistreated or neglected.

But on the other hand, I also come from the point of view that:

  • volunteering with a nonprofit is a privilege, not a right. I involve volunteers so long as it explicitly benefits the mission of the organization, and if forced to choose, my loyalty would be to the mission of the organization and those it serves rather than to a volunteer.
  • volunteers are human beings and should absolutely be expected to be treated as such, however, they are NOT employees, and therefore are not entitled by law to any of the same legal benefits of an employee.
  • volunteers are managed by a volunteer coordinator, rather than a human resources director, because volunteers are NOT employees.

So I read this article with a lot of empathy and sympathy, but then cringed at “Volunteers should be protected against unfair dismissal.” Legally protected? If so, legally protected how?

The primary consequence of an employee being unfairly dismissed is that he or she loses income. There are other consequences, but loss of income is the primary consequence, and we all know that income is necessary for survival. The laws that protect employees from being unfairly dismissed aren’t designed to do anything other than to prevent an employee from losing income and to restore an unfairly-treated employee’s lost income; the laws aren’t designed to restore anyone’s dignity or honor.

What would be the legal redress of a volunteer wronged? If a volunteer is granted the ability to sue regarding dismissal, what will the compensation be if whatever deciding body sides with the volunteer? Will he or she receive money? If so, say goodbye to volunteer involvement at probably most organizations; they aren’t going to risk that kind of financial expenditure. Reinstatement? The organization will be forced to involve the volunteer in his or her previous role? Does that volunteer then become untouchable, meaning the organization will have to keep the kinds of files, including regular evaluations, on volunteers that they maintain for staff in order to justify the disciplining, the requirement for training or the firing of a volunteer?

I guess in summary: I don’t ever want any volunteer dismissed for arbitrary reasons, I don’t ever want any volunteer mistreated or exploited, and I want us all to work to make sure that never happens, but I also don’t want volunteers to become employees, for a variety of reasons that I hope I’ve made clear (not sure I have).

And so I don’t really know what the answer is…

And I still don’t.